When photographer J. Henry Fair first started photographing industrial sites from the air, he didn’t know exactly what he was looking at—so, he learned. This is what making phosphate fertilizer looks like, this is leeching copper ore, this is waste from an aluminum refinery. Now, the images were more than “a beautiful green thing” or “a beautiful red thing,” they were fitting into a story, what Fair calls, “the big story.”
Industrial Scars, his new book, attempts to show the vast and incredible marks that humans have left on the planet, from fracking to copper mining to the production of food. “Climate change is so big that people don’t really get it”, he says, “A picture does tell a story that words can’t tell.”
Taking photos from the air allows Fair to see things that would otherwise, sometime purposefully, remain hidden from public view. “There are two inherent beauties in doing [aerial] photographs,” he says, “one, it’s just such an interesting viewpoint for a human and, two, you can get over the fences.” He often partners with environmental groups LightHawk and SouthWings, both of which provide planes and pilots for conservation projects or what Fair referred to as “one of my wild goose chases.”
The need to be in the air for a long time is one of the reasons he has rejected the frequent suggestion that he use a drone. Once he finds a site, he circles it “endlessly” to get the perfect shot, a behavior the FBI once found suspicious enough to wake him up in his hotel room, he reports in the book. Another more surprising consideration is turbulence caused by the hot gases coming up off many industrial sites.
A couple of locations in particular stand out to him as particularly horrific, the tar sands in Canada and mountain-top removal mining in Appalachia. The gulf spill, however, he recalled as the most traumatic. “Just being out there, day after day, and watching it, feeling angry and helpless.”
Although horrific, the images are beautiful, even awe-inspiring. It’s this “essential dissonance,” Fair says, that makes them effective, that makes people stop, look and, hopefully, think.
Fair hopes that the images will help viewers make connections between their daily lives and the price that those banal activities exact on the environment. “Buy a fast food hamburger,” he says, “and you’re cutting down the Brazilian rainforest to grow soy to grow cattle to ship them to America to make you a fast food burger. That’s climate change.”